Dark-Horse Destinations for Top 2019 NBA Free Agents

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistJune 22, 2019

Dark-Horse Destinations for Top 2019 NBA Free Agents

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    NBA Photo Library/Getty Images

    As difficult as this may be to believe, the NBA's free-agency period hasn't officially started yet.

    Pay no attention to the rumors, reports and social media speculation behind the curtain. These teams and players aren't even talking to each other yet (*wink*).

    But that won't stop us from breaking down this loaded class nearly two weeks before July 1. The implications this summer are massive. So, there's just no way to get too far out in front.

    And, as if there wasn't already enough intrigue based on the names alone, the injuries of Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson in the Finals have made things even wilder.

    And it's in the interest of wildness that we write to you today. You'll get your predictions for specifically where these guys are going elsewhere; here, the goal is to find the dark horse.

    For all the top free agents who have at least a decent chance of leaving, what's one team that's maybe a little unexpected but still makes plenty of sense?

    To determine who those top free agents are, NBA Math's #CrystalBasketball will lend a hand. There, a panel of 14 analysts graded everyone's 2018-19 season on a 1-12 scale. Those grades were then averaged to determine a final ranking.

    If you take the top 10 free agents or potential free agents from that ranking, you get: Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, Jimmy Butler, Klay Thompson, Al Horford, Nikola Vucevic, Khris Middleton and Tobias Harris.

    Now, let's trim that a bit.

    The Athletic's Jordan Brenner reported that one Western Conference executive told him Middleton is "going back" on a five-year, near-max deal. And Mark Medina of the Mercury News relayed Thompson's father's thoughts on his free agency. "Klay will be back," Mychal Thompson said.

    That leaves us with a couple bigs (Vucevic and Horford), a couple Philadelphia 76ers (Butler and Harris), Kemba, Kyrie, Kawhi and KD.

The Bigs

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    Claudio Cruz/Associated Press

    The Minnesota Timberwolves are the only team with a worse winning percentage than the Sacramento Kings since the start of the 2006-07 season. And yet, Sacramento is a logical destination for either Vucevic or Horford.

    The Kings have one of the league's most intriguing young backcourts in De'Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield.

    Among players his age (21) or younger this past season, Fox was seventh in points per game, second in assists per game and tied for sixth with Jamal Murray in offensive box plus/minus.

    Hield was one of five players who averaged 20-plus points and shot at least 40 percent from three. The other four were Stephen Curry, Thompson, Irving and Karl-Anthony Towns.

    And Sacramento's upside doesn't end there. Bogdan Bogdanovic has shown some point forward ability. And Marvin Bagley III could be a 20-and-10 guy at either big position. He just needs to figure out the intricacies of NBA defense.

    Oh, and Sacramento just happens to have an estimated $62.6 million in cap space, according to Yahoo's Keith Smith.

    The Drive 1140's Carmichael Dave may be right when he says, "The Sacramento Kings have the best combination of cap space and young talent in the entire league."

    And that brings us back to Vuc and Horford.

    Willie Cauley-Stein may certainly fit that cap space/young talent combo, but the aforementioned free agents offer both immediate upgrades and a little veteran presence for a playoff push.

    Either one could fill the sort of steadying role Paul Millsap has for the rising Denver Nuggets over the last two seasons. Not to mention how well their actual skills fit.

    Both can create and distribute from the high or low post. Even some top-of-the-key facilitation is in play. Both shoot well enough to invert the floor and open up space for Fox's drives and Bagley's touches inside.

    But what's the appeal for the players? Well, there's obviously money. Few teams may be able to justify paying a big max or near-max money in this market. Go up and down the list of teams and see how many you can identify that would spend $25-plus million on a center.

    And again, this is a young core that just finished ninth in the loaded West last season. It's only going to get better over the next few years. There are certainly worse situations to which an All-Star big could hitch his wagon.

The 76ers

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    Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

    Let's get this out of the way first: The 76ers can keep Butler and Harris.

    "Absolutely," general manager Elton Brand said in February when asked if Philly would re-sign both, per Sixers Wire's Moke Hamilton. "I've gotten all assurances from the managing partners that we can bring them back and sign them for what we need to sign them for."

    And the Sixers should probably explore that possibility. Last season, Philly was plus-16.0 points per 100 possessions (98th percentile) when those two shared the floor with franchise cornerstone Joel Embiid, according to Cleaning the Glass. It's just that it's a mighty expensive possibility.

    "So, *if* the Sixers can get JJ Redick back on a deal starting at $10M, they can max Tobias and Jimmy and still have the full non-taxpayer [mid-level exception] if they renounce all of their other FAs," Bleacher Report's Bryan Toporek tweeted.

    But doing that and filling out the rest of the roster with minimum contracts and the players they already have on rookie contracts sends Philly well into luxury-tax territory.

    Brand said ownership was willing to go there but things would get exponentially more expensive down the line. Ben Simmons will be up for an extension soon. And the repeater tax is looming.

    So, with that explanation (plus the knowledge that the players might leave regardless of what Philly wants to do) setting the stage, let's get to those dark-horse destinations.

    With eight years of service behind them, Butler and Harris are both qualified for a starting max salary worth 30 percent of the projected $109 million cap. That works out to $32.7 million.

    The Indiana Pacers are an intriguing young team that could fit either. And, according to Yahoo's Keith Smith, Indiana can get to nearly $60 million in space. That's more than enough to sign Butler or Harris to a deal starting at $32.7 million and Ricky Rubio, who the Pacers are reportedly after.

    Suddenly, Indiana would have an imposing core that included Rubio, Myles Turner, Domantas Sabonis, Victor Oladipo and Harris/Butler.

    Now, this possibility feels far more real when applied to Harris. Butler may be looking for a bigger market. In that case, would he be enough to satisfy New York Knicks fans in the event they don't get KD?

Kemba Walker

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    It's hard to imagine Kemba Walker leaving the Charlotte Hornets. Here are a few categories in which he's the franchise's all-time leader:

    • Minutes
    • Field goals
    • Threes
    • Free throws
    • Points
    • Win shares
    • Wins over replacement player

    There's an argument to be made that Kemba's the greatest player in Hornets history. Letting him go after eight seasons would sting.

    But in those eight years, Charlotte has only made the playoffs in the weaker conference twice. And he's qualified for a supermax contract that would have a starting salary of $38.2 million with the possibility for annual eight-percent raises over five years, though he's said he's willing to take less to stay.

    How much less remains a mystery.

    Even if you pay Kemba around $30 million a year for five years, you have a diminutive point guard taking up a huge chunk of your cap space well into his 30s.

    There's an argument for pivoting away from the franchise's best player.

    If they did, the Boston Celtics might be an interesting destination for Walker.

    Kyrie Irving is gone. Kemba can approximate much of what he did on the floor while providing the opposite of what he did off it. Maybe some healthy locker-room chemistry gets Boston back on track with the hype it had before 2018-19.

    Walker obviously doesn't solve the Celtics' other problem, though. Figuring out Al Horford's replacement at center is critical. And a core of Walker, Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown could attract some good ones.

Kyrie Irving

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    Kyrie's free agency is becoming as difficult to decipher as his Instagram posts or flat-earth dissertations.

    Less than a year ago, he committed to Boston at a fan event. That notion took a beating over the course of the season. Then, just ahead of the draft, Irving signing with the Nets started to feel like a foregone conclusion. At least for a while.

    "The Post has reported the Nets' dream offseason is pairing Kevin Durant with Kyrie Irving, and sources say that hasn't changed," The New York Post's Brian Lewis reported. "The question is if they can't land Durant, do they still want Irving? Especially if they have to lose D'Angelo Russell — their own 23-year-old homegrown All-Star — to get him?"

    Imagine Kyrie dumping the Celtics only to turn around and have the Nets tell him, "Nah, we'll pass."

    Yeah, it's not easy. Still, we're now in a world where that might happen. And in that world, Irving is suddenly in limbo.

    The Lakers are another team that is naturally brought up in connection to Kyrie, but who knows if they'll be able to get to the cap space they need to sign him to a max?

    If other options dry up, the Phoenix Suns are an interesting destination. The problem is that it might take a salary dump to fit the $32.7 million max starting salary Kyrie's qualified for.

    On Friday, Tyler Johnson exercised his $19.25 million player option, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski. Phoenix would probably have to attach some significant sweeteners to salary dump that contract. And the list of teams that might help the Suns on that front probably isn't long.

    But a core of Kyrie, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges and Deandre Ayton would have plenty of long-term potential.

Kawhi Leonard

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    Free agency feels wildly unpredictable this summer. And the embodiment of that unpredictably may well be Kawhi.

    "Interesting segment from [Ryen] Russillo on SVP's SportsCenter earlier on Kawhi: basically said in talking to a bunch of different teams around the league, everyone is telling him no one knows anything about what he's going to do," Forum Blue & Gold's Darius Soriano tweeted. "That there's simply no information out there at all."

    After leading the Toronto Raptors to their first title in his first season in The North, you have to think they're in play, even if it's a short-term deal that allows him to re-enter free agency in 2021, when he has 10 years of service and is qualified for a 35-percent max.

    Kawhi's hometown Los Angeles Clippers have long been rumored as a leading possibility.

    And on Thursday, the Knicks, Nets and 76ers suddenly became possibilities.

    "The Clippers and Raptors are certainly at the front of the line for him," Adrian Wojnarowski said during ESPN's broadcast of the draft (h/t The Athletic's Rob Lopez). "I'm told that Leonard may very well take visits in free agency, meetings at least, with the Knicks, the 76ers, possibly, even the Nets, in addition to the Clippers."

    One team that would make a lot of sense for Leonard that hasn't been mentioned is the Dallas Mavericks. Dallas checks the boxes of warm weather, big media market, no state income tax, potential max salary available and a promising young core.

    Kawhi flanked by Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis is a trio that could cause problems for the league for years.

Kevin Durant

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    The summer of 2019 was going to be bananas, regardless of what happened with KD. His Finals injury made things even more difficult to forecast.

    The situation has led to talk of a creative sign-and-trade possibility we've never seen before.

    Brian Windhorst explained on ESPN's The Jump that Golden State has contemplated signing Durant to the five-year max he can't get anywhere else, allowing him to rehab there for a year before trading him next summer.

    The benefit for KD is obvious. He's likely not playing next year anyway. So, he's still under contract for four years when he joins his new team, and he makes an extra $57 million over the life of the deal.

    For the Warriors, they garner goodwill among players around the league and get assets in return for Durant next summer, rather than having him leave for nothing right now.

    So, if we assume this is what Durant and Golden State are going to do, we can defer the search for a dark-horse destination to 2020.

    Sure, the Knicks will have RJ Barrett and other assets to send to the Warriors. And back to the whole "garner goodwill" thing, Golden State will likely honor his wishes if he throws preferred destinations out there.

    But let's get wild to close this thing out.

    Suppose Derrick White and Lonnie Walker IV both look great next season and Luka Samanic shows flashes of a modern 5 who can hit threes, attack closeouts and defend a little bit.

    Trading Durant into the cap space the San Antonio Spurs can create by waiving the last year of LaMarcus Aldridge's deal (guaranteed for only $7 million in 2020-21) for those three and draft picks could restock Golden State's cupboard.

    KD then gets to lead the Spurs through Gregg Popovich's twilight.

    Oh, and San Antonio is closer to Austin, where Durant went to college, than the other two Texas teams.